The First of the Few aka Spitfire
A British Aviation Pictures Production
By the late 1920's aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell feels he has achieved all he wants with his revolutionary mono-planes winning trophy after trophy. But a holiday in Germany shortly after Hitler assumes power convinces him that it is vital to design a completely new type of fighter plane and that sooner or later Britain's very survival may depend on what he comes to call the Spitfire.
~Jeremy Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Leslie Howard, George King (uncredited), John Stafford (uncredited)
Director: Leslie Howard
Writers: Henry C. James (original story), Katherine Strueby (original story), Miles Malleson (screenplay), Anatole de Grunwald (screenplay)
Filmed at D&P Studios, Denham Studios, Denham, Buckinghamshire, England, UK (studio work), and Polperro, Cornwall, England, UK (exteriors).
Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell
David Niven as Geoffrey Crisp
Rosamund John as Diana Mitchell
Roland Culver as Commander Bride
Anne Firth as Miss Harper
David Horne as Mr. Higgins
J.H. Roberts as Sir Robert McLean
Derrick De Marney as Squadron Leader Jefferson
Rosalyn Boulter as Squadron Leader Jefferson
Herbert Cameron as MacPherson
Toni Edgar-Bruce as Lady Houston
Gordon McLeod as Major Buchan
George Skillan as Henry Royce
Erik Freund as Willy Messerschmitt
Fritz Wendhausen as F.R. Wendhausen as Von Straben
John Chandos as Krantz
Victor Beaumont as Von Crantz
Suzanne Clair as Madeleine
Filippo Del Giudice as Bertorelli
Brefni O'Rorke as The Specialist
UK: 14 September 1942.
USA: 12 June 1943 (eleven days after Leslie Howard's death)
This was Leslie Howard's last film. On June 1st, 1943, while on a regularly scheduled BOAC/KLM flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England in a camouflaged Douglas DC-3, Howard was shot down over the Bay of Biscay (longitude 09.37 West, latitude 46.54 North) by Luftwaffe Junkers Ju88C6 maritime fighter aircraft based at Bordeaux, Vichy France. He was among the 17 fatalities, including four ex-KLM flight crew. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was scheduled to be on this flight, but security staff changed plans at the last minute. Churchill later expressed sorrow that a mistake about his activities might have cost Howard his life.
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Niven, a former Sandhurst graduate, returned home and re-joined the Army. He was alone among British stars in Hollywood in doing so; the British Embassy advised most actors to stay. He enlisted as a Major in the British Army Film Unit. He acted in two films made during the war, The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). Both were made with a view to winning support for the British war effort, especially in the US. Niven's Film Unit work included a small part in the deception operation that used minor actor M.E. Clifton James to impersonate Field Marshal Montgomery.
During his work with the Film Unit, Peter Ustinov, though one of the script-writers, had to pose as Niven's batman. (Ustinov also acted in The Way Ahead.) Niven explained in his autobiography that there was no military way that he, as a Major, and Ustinov, who was only a private, could associate, except as an officer and his subordinate, hence their strange "act". Ustinov later appeared with Niven in Death on the Nile (1978).
Niven first met Churchill at a dinner party in February 1940. Churchill singled him out from the crowd and stated, "Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable."
Trivia from IMDB:
This is the last on-screen performance of Leslie Howard.
Leslie Howard's daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard, appears as Nurse Kennedy.
Film debut of actor Alan Hume.
In the film Leslie Howard's Mitchell says he wants his new fighter to be "a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction; A spitfire bird", giving the aircraft its name. In reality, when RJ Mitchell was told the name the RAF had given to his design he is supposed to have said: "That's the sort of bloody silly name they would choose!"
The "Merlin" is actually a kind of European Falcon; Rolls-Royce named a great many of their aircraft engines after birds of prey.
The film's closing epilogue is a famous quote from Winston Churchill. It states: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
The film's opening prologue is a quote from Alexander de Seversky. It states: "In the grim days of 1940, when Britain stood alone between mankind and the Nazi hordes, a fighter plane staved off disaster. Behind this plane lies the heroic and unselfish story of R.J. Mitchell - - the British Engineer whose story is a great inspiration to American engineers and designers - - those invisible members of the air-power team - - who toil relentlessly to forger superiors weapons, so that their teammates, the gallant air-men, may go into combat with the kind of advantage they deserve."
This film's opening credits state: "Starring pilots and other personnel of Fighter Command Royal Air Force."
Several real-life Battle of Britain RAF pilots such as Anthony C. Bartley and Brian Kingcome are featured in small roles in the opening and closing sequences at the dispersal hut, talking with David Niven's character and discussing their "kills".
In the opening scenes, the RAF pilots who are being briefed are from No. 501 Squadron. The Spitfires are carrying the markings "SD", which were carried by No. 501 "Mandrel" Squadron. At the height of the battle these pilots would have been flying the Hawker Hurricane instead of the Spitfire. The squadron had fought in the Battle or France before the evacuation of the BEF at Dunkirk at the end of May 1940. The squadron then moved to RAF Kenley, from where they fought the Battle of Britain.
Other films on IA with David Niven as of this date:
There Goes The Bride (Niven's film debut), 1932
Eternally Yours, 1939
The Way Ahead aka The Immortal Battalion, 1944
Lady Says No, 1952